Aging in place

Contractors target maturing market with attractive and adaptable modifications

Some 70 percent of seniors spend the rest of their lives in the place where they celebrated their 65th birthday.

People are getting older, and millions more of them than ever before. The "maturing market" represents significant opportunities to construction and remodeling companies catering to this segment.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, Americans 55 years or older have the highest rate of homeownership, with about 80 percent owning a home. And they want to stay there as they get older. A survey conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons in 2000 showed 90 percent of people 65 or older wanted to stay where they were currently living for as long as possible. Following the survey, AARP and NAHB developed the Certified Aging in Place Specialist designation for remodelers. Participating contractors attend a three-day training program to learn the technical, customer service and marketing skills required to make aging-in-place home modifications part of their business.

Dorman Holcomb, owner of T Square Remodeling in Vancouver, became CAPS certified about two years ago.

"The industry saw a need for this," said Holcomb. "It allows us to provide more options for our customers."

Designers lead the way
Holcomb sees a lot of opportunity in the market for aging-in-place modifications. Much of the work being done today involves improvements to accommodate existing needs, such as wheelchair ramps after the use of one is required or grab bars in a shower following a fall. But the movement is toward making improvements early to accommodate future needs.

Everyone will age, notes Holcomb.

"In reality, it makes sense when designing for somebody that is 35 to have some of these things," he said.

Though not a senior citizen, Vancouver’s Shannon Campbell has a progressive illness that affects her mobility. She has made modifications to her home as she has become reliant on walking aids. With an understanding of what people go through as the age and want to continue living in their homes, Campbell realized she could help people design homes for a lifetime. She became CAPS certified and began doing some research. Campbell is writing a book titled Home Design for Life and acts as a consultant for builders, contractors and homeowners.

The cost of modifications can be minimal if done in conjunction with traditional work, said Holcomb. When building or remodeling, adding reinforcement to a wall for later installation of grab bars to stacking closets on two levels to accommodate an elevator in the future can save time and money when they become a necessity. Designing them ahead of time allows them to be more aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.

"People don’t want their home to look institutional," said Campbell. "That’s what happens when they wait."

Barbara Murphy, with Portland’s Neil Kelly Designers/Remodelers, said when remodeling or building, keep in mind that needs change with time.

"Make it accessible and easily adaptable," she said.

The aging-in-place market has boosted the company’s business by marketing specifically to the segment.

"I looked at the demographics and saw this is where our clients are; mostly baby boomers or older," said Murphy.

Areas of emphasis
A number of things can be done to make a home more suitable for homeowners as they age. Decreased mobility, dexterity, strength and stamina and reduced vision and hearing all come with age. Navigating stairs, taking a shower and preparing meals become more difficult.

Kitchens and bathrooms are areas of emphasis, said Murphy. A lot of daily activity takes place in these rooms and they present unique challenges and hazards. Many simple things can be done, such as adding grab bars, installing lever handles on doors rather than doorknobs or making sure the edges of counters are a different color than the surface. Larger projects include making doorways wider to accommodate a wheelchair or walker and adjusting the height of cabinets and countertops and creating places to sit while cooking.

Overall design should be considered as well, said Campbell. Wide hallways, electrical outlets higher up the wall and eliminating steps are useful features. Keeping the main living quarters of the home on the ground floor, including the master bedroom, kitchen and living room, reduces the need to travel up and down the stairs, said Campbell.

"The features are designed to be more efficient, but it can be done very attractively with some thought," said Campbell.

It should also be considered that the makeup of the house may change. Having an extra bedroom, or a room that can be converted into one, could accommodate two widows living with each other or a live-in caretaker.

"The way you use rooms may change," said Campbell.

Manufacturers make the change
Not only are designers and contractors savvier about creating more live-able spaces for seniors, manufacturers are creating a broader, more stylized line of specialized products for the aging-in-place market.

Higher toilets, showers with seats and low thresholds, easy-to-use hardware for sinks and appliances and stair lifts are some of the many products designed and marketed to the older population.

"Over the course of time, more materials have become available and more attractive," said Murphy, "primarily because the market has increased."

The attention being given to the products has also made their use more accepted. Murphy said consumers chose style over function to avoid being labeled old. When bath products manufacturer Kohler changed the name of its 18-inch tall toilet from handicap to comfort-height, its popularity boomed.

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